Overview – lymphoedema is a long-term (chronic) condition that causes swelling in the legs and / or feet
Sometimes our legs or feet become swollen and feel uncomfortable. This is known as oedema and it happens when fluid in our lower legs or feet has trouble returning back up through the body. It may be a temporary problem such as after a long flight when it is a way of our body telling us we need to move around more. It is the lymphatic system of vessels, like veins, that work to remove this excess fluid and along with it, various toxins that the body needs to excrete via the kidneys.
However, for the lymphatic system to do its job well, needs to be stimulated by regular movement of muscle and skin. Temporary swelling is a sign that we need to move around a bit more and stretch our ankles and calf muscles. It usually goes away quite quickly once we start to move around.
If swelling of the feet, ankles or legs persists for more than 3 months it is called chronic oedemaAlthough there are several causes of chronic oedema which need to be treated, oedema that does not completely resolve overnight or with elevation, indicates that the function of the lymphatic system is beginning to fail and is a sign of early lymphoedema (lymphatic failure).. All chronic oedema, regardless of initial cause, indicates a degree of lymphoedema. If not treated, it can lead to changes in the skin and deeper tissues. It can also lead to infection (cellulitis). Lymphoedema in the lower limbs is commonly related to chronic venous insufficiency.
Symptoms – swollen legs and feet
What does oedema look like?
The first signs of oedema are swelling which can occur in one particular part of the body (for example the feet or ankles), or may be more general, depending on the cause. It can also cause feelings of tightness, discomfort and stretching of the skin. This image shows chronic oedema of the legs and feet.
We know it is chronic and that there is lymphatic failure ecause of the deep skin folds which have developed due to the tissues under the skin become thickened and firmer in an uneven way. There are also skin changes with a blistered or warty appearance, but the skin may also look dry and scaly. The risk of developing an infection called cellulitis is also increased.
What is lymphoedema?
Legs and feet can become swollen for many reasons. One of these is lymphoedema. The lymphatic system can be thought of as a waste disposal system that takes tissue fluid and waste products away from the tissues around your skin, fat, muscle and bone. Once the tissue fluid is inside the lymphatic vessels, which are just under the surface of our skin, it becomes known as ‘lymph’. Lymph is then transported in one direction by larger and deeper lymphatic vessels. Lymph moves when we are active and when we breath deeply, so any physical activity helps the lymph vessels work better and prevent or reduce any swelling. Being active is an essential part of treatment.
There are many causes of lymphoedema. Some people may be born with a tendency to develop it. It is more likely to occur in those who are overweight, inactive, who have problems with their veins or who have had cancer treatment involving surgery or radiotherapy in the pelvis or lower limbs. Some joint surgery may also damage lymphatic vessels and contribute to development of lymphoedema.
Here’s a short film to explain “What is Lymphoedema?”.
Swelling in the lower legs can also be caused by right-sided congestive heart failure. This is known as cardiac oedema and also causes shortness of breath and weight gain. It is important that cardiac oedema is considered in anyone being treated for these symptoms, and before compression therapy is prescribed.
However, if someone has a cardiac problem they may also have other problems, such as lymphoedema which must be treated too. If treatment for a cardiac problem does not resolve chronic foot or ankle swelling, this is a strong indication that the lymphati8c system has not been able to cope with the chronic overload of fluid and lymphoedema has developed.
You can read more about lymphoedema at NHS Choices, on the British Lymphology Society pages or on the information pages of the Lymphoedema Support Network.
Causes – what causes lymphoedema in the legs?
‘Venous’ is anything related to our veins. Swelling often happens when our veins are not working as well as they should. Blood is pumped from our heart to the rest of our body through our arteries and returns to our heart through your veins. Blood is then propelled back to our heart by our heart pumping. Our leg and foot muscles help this along by circulating blood as you walk and move your ankles.
Our veins contain one-way valves that stop the blood falling back towards your toes. These valves can become weak or damaged. When this happens, our veins become swollen (varicose veins) that blood is forced into the tissue of your skin making it swell and overburdening the lymphatic system.
Diagnosis – getting your lymphoedema diagnosed
If your legs or feet are swollen, make an appointment at your GP practice, who will be able to diagnose or exclude conditions such as cardiac problems. The GP may refer you to a nurse responsible for caring for patients with venous leg problems or a lymphoedema clinic.
When you see the nurse or doctor, they should:
- Assess possible risk factors for venous insufficiency, arterial disease, lymphoedema
- Exclude lipoedema as a possible diagnosis
- Perform a clinical assessment for significant arterial impairment. This may include, but should not be solely based on, measurement of Ankle Brachial Pressure Index (ABPI), particularly because a reading may not be possible in a swollen limb.
- If you possibly have problems with your veins or arteries you should be referred for further vascular tests to see if you are suitable for (modified) compression therapy and or intervention to your veins or arteries
If you have or may have cellulitis, an urgent medical referral is required. Please also refer to the BLS guidelines on the management of cellulitis in lymphoedema (PDF)
If you have leakage of lymph from your legs, please refer to the The chronic oedema wet leg pathway (PDF)
You might also be offered some other tests to check for other health problems such as diabetes and anaemia that can affect your legs.
Your GP Practice may refer you to a specialist lymphoedema clinic or to your local hospital if they think you may have problems with your veins or arteries.
Treatment – what treatment will I be offered for lymphoedema of the legs?
The treatment for swollen legs depends on what has caused the swelling.
The first line treatment for venous hypertension should be a combination of compression therapy and assessment of need for venous intervention. If there is soft, mild oedema in the presence of an ulcer, a leg ulcer kit may be appropriate.
The key components of treatment are:
- Learning how to care for your skin and prevent cellulitis
- Being as active as possible
- Adopting and maintaining a healthy diet and weight
Compression therapy for lymphoedema
This may involve singly, or in combination, bandaging, compression garments or wraps.
Compression therapy (support bandages or socks)
If your legs or feet are swollen because of venous insufficiency or lymphoedema and there are no problems with the blood supply to your legs or feet, then you are likely to require compression therapy. Compression therapy improves blood supply by applying pressure to the leg. This can be done by bandaging the lower leg or by wearing supportive socks, stockings or tights. Compression therapy is very effective at reducing swelling, reducing the risk of cellulitis and healing or preventing sores or ulcers. You may need to be seen by a lymphoedema or other specialist for specialist measuring and fitting of compression.
There are lots of different types of compression therapy so ask your nurse to find something that is right for you. Your legs may feel uncomfortable at times in compression stockings or bandages. This is often towards the end of the day when your legs can become more swollen. This can be relieved by elevating your legs for a good amount of time and stretching your ankles and calf muscles and wiggling toes can also help. You may have been experiencing pain in your ulcer before compression treatment. We would advise that you continue with any pain relief you may have been prescribed. Compression stockings or bandages should not increase pain. If your pain increases or becomes severe, contact the nurse or doctor who prescribed them.
Compression garments are usually the mainstay of long term treatment. Generally, higher levels of compression are needed when treating lymphoedema than if treating venous oedema alone (minimum RAL Class 1 (18-23mm Hg).
Flat knit and / or custom made garments are often used. This is because lymphoedema changes the shape of the limb so off-the-shelf garments can create a tourniquet effect, which exacerbates swelling.
Multi-layer lymphoedema compression bandaging (MLB)
Bandaging is an alternative to compression garments. Short-stretch bandaging is generally used to create a low resting pressure and high working pressure. Bandaging is appropriate if:
- Skin is fragile, damaged or ulcerated skin or there is lymphorrhoea (weeping skin)
- There are chronic skin changes, e.g. hyperkeratosis or papillomatosis
- There is distortion in shape or exaggerated skin folds
- The affected limb is too large to fit hosiery
Compression bandaging should be applied with caution if there are signs of:
- Severe arterial disease
- Untreated deep vein thrombosis (DVT)
- Uncontrolled heart failure
- Uncontrolled hypertension
- Severe peripheral neuropathy
- Cellulitis – compression may be suspended or reduced for a few days if the patient is unable to tolerate normal compression, otherwise, it may be continued.
Wraps may be used as an adjunct to treatment or as an alternative to compression garments or bandaging (as long as there is minimal or well-managed exudate) if the patient is unable to apply stockings, or long term bandaging is not an option.
This is a specialised light massage technique that stimulates and reroutes lymph flow to viable drainage areas. If your lymphoedema considers you may benefit from this they may offer a course of Manual Lymphatic Drainage (MLD) or teach you and/or a carer how to undertake a modified version of this, which is called Self Lymphatic Drainage (SLD)
Other adjunctive therapies that may be considered include sequential pneumatic compression, kinesiotaping or low level laser therapy. These all need to be carried out by practitioners with specialist training.
And please remember the following:
- Swollen tissues are easily damaged, so care is needed to protect skin from injury, scratches, insect bites or sunburn
- Lymphatic failure increases risk of infection, so keep skin clean by washing and careful drying, especially between the toes daily and applying a non-perfumed moisturiser to keep the skin supple
- If signs of infection occur, e.g. redness, more swelling, pain, and feeling fluish, seek medical advice immediately
Things you can do to help your lymphoedema
Here are some lifestyle changes an individual can make to help reduce swelling:
- Maintain a healthy weight
- Be as active as possible. to the ideal is to take light to moderate exercise such as swimming or walking for about thirty minutes at least three times a week. Being active while wearing compression is particularly effective. Even if with limited mobility, there are things that can be done to help to reduce swelling. Refer to the British Lymphology Society EveryBodyCan pages for ideas and information Link here to the LM Movement videos
- Avoid standing for a long time – it is best to keep feet and legs moving as much as possible. A good activity is to try lifting up one heel at a time to stretch the foot arch or rock back on the heels but make sure ther is something to hold on to to avoid any falls
- Try to avoid sitting for long periods with legs down, put feet up – elevating legs above the level of the heart. It is also helpful to do foot and ankle stretches to help the circulation of blood and lymph
Harm – the risk factors
Inaction or insufficient action on oedema and lymphoedema can cause harm. This includes:
- Swollen ankles and feet may seem like a trivial problem that affects us all as we get older. However, it is a warning sign that something isn’t working properly, eg the heart, kidneys or possibly alongside a failure of the lymphatic drainage system.
- Ignoring the symptom allows the damage to get worse and harder to treat in the longer term.
- Lymphatic drainage failure (lymphoedema) that is untreated causes changes in the skin and the tissues under the skin and puts the person at risk of a serious infection called cellulitis, possibly leading to septicaemia.
If you have any concerns about the treatment or care you are receiving, it is important to speak up. Find out more.
- What information, advice and support should be provided for those at risk of lymphoedema? (Web page with option to download PDF for members)
- Lymphoedema facts, activity and exercise (Web page with option to download PDF)
- Get moving with lymphoedema (PDF Download)
Some organisations you can contact for further information.
Accelerate Based in East London, Accelerate can accept national referrals from your GP / specialist to our world-class centre where we pioneer and trial experimental new treatments for chronic leg ulcers / wounds, lymphoedema and mobility challenges.
020 3819 6022
Find out more on the Accelerate website
The British Lymphology Society (BLS) is a dynamic and innovative body providing a strong professional voice and support for those involved in the care and treatment of people with lymphoedema and related lymphatic disorders, including lipoedema.
Find out more on the British Lymphology Society website
Lymphoedema Support Network (LSN) is a national UK charity which provides information and support to people with lymphoedema.
020 7351 0990
Find out more on the Lymphoedema Support Network website
NHS Choices the official NHS website, which provides vital information and support about leg and foot signs and other symptoms.
Call 111 - for non-emergency medical advice
Find out more on the NHS Choices website
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